Traveling solo means spending Christmas alone | Sagada, Philippines

I was told it was sad. I was advised not to be. There’s a disgraceful stereotyping about it. Before it could even be hindered, I was on my way to Sagada. I wrote a short love letter to the place two years ago:

Christmas alone in Sagada - Art of Movement - Lovey Marquez (40)Sagada’s seemingly endless curves lead to somewhere special, for sure.

I learned that life brings persistent encounters of learning, in all astonishing forms, in varying aspects. We must see each moment as such. Opportunities abound. I learned that boxes are futile containers. Humans are more than their flesh and bones. Even longtime friends surprise you. More so, the recent ones. The process of unraveling is inevitable. I learned the figurative existence of parallels and perpendiculars in the paths we take. Out of those, we can create intersections. I learned how silences are not to be taken for granted. They carry more meaning than we suspect them to have. We should be grateful for the wisdom its subtlety provides. I learned to be more aware of the beatings of hearts other than mine. I learned to show my race of thoughts to people who share their own race of thoughts too. It is one way to be truer and happier. I learned to desire and eventually decide on braver steps. It is another way to be truer and happier. (November, 2013)

It was one of the most revealing and memorable of my travels. It was sincerely heaps of fun, especially when I came with my two closest friends and also a dear mate we met from our trip in South Korea. But right now, I’m not going back to experience fun. I wanted peace and joy for Christmas, and I wanted it liberatingly alone.

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I can’t feel anxiousness rising out of the mist of mystery and solitude. I have no underlying obligations to react to someone’s reaction, but to merely, naturally respond by showing up. I don’t have the need to talk to people whenever I don’t feel like it, but I feel belonging to life and nature nonetheless. I am the cold in the bones that makes one cuddle her knees and legs, I am the treetops, I am the orange farm, or the orange itself, I am the disintegration in the strands of hair whenever the wind blows or the dryness in the face, I am the dog astray on the street. I am anything, and it feels good to be infinite.


I am eating slowly a late lunch of chicken and cashew with an abundance of veggies on top and rice. I read my book on the terrace of Yogurt House’s second floor. The seemingly empty space before me refreshes my mind. I watch people walking below, dominantly foreigners. I stare at the yellow house in front of me and adore its simplicity. My eyes move farther and settle on the tremendous richness of green. I continue to read, at the same time, hear the chatter of the Dutch guys and girls beside me. I wish to be seated next to the solo guy on my right side. When they finally leave, another group of girls replace their seats. They have a long negotiation with the waiter and I laugh with the girls. All three of them conclude to order yogurt. I feel envious and impulsive and, seconds later, order a banana and granola yogurt, thankfully without the ordeal of prolonging the situation. I give it a try minutes after its arrival and the exotic smack on my mouth tastes sweet and sour and healthy.

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Christmas alone in Sagada - Art of Movement - Lovey Marquez (7)

I am rightfully present and pleasantly alone. I couldn’t remember the last time when I can read a book and drink coffee and chill indefinitely like it’s the only activity in the world that I can thrive on. What else is there in life? I read regularly, I drink coffee twice a day, yet there’s always a dangling “important” thing to accomplish, one after another. Time passes unnoticed. Time is divided, carefully allotted for several exhibitions.

Thinking less, feeling more. Doing less, accomplishing more.


I carry my stuffed bag and head to Bana Café and Restaurant. I haven’t been here before. The moon eagerly appears in the afternoon, slightly above the trees in the mountains. I take photos and watch it watching over me. I sip my third cup of coffee for the day and read again while the loud sound of the coffee machine in a nearby room brings upbeat music to my ears. Before darkness swallows the night, I stroll into the cold and wander aimlessly along the main street. I haven’t got far yet and I am already gifted with these intense sunset hues. The colorful souvenir shops are a temporary sanctuary. One by one, I remember the restaurants we ate in two years ago, like fluid flowing on my palms and dripping its last drops along the ascending street. A trip down memory lane, they say. I notice new guesthouses built and being built. When you go back to a place, something about it changes, or the person visiting changes. Basically, the experience is just never the same.

I go back to the lodge and rest on my comfortable bed.

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Moonbeams
Fiery sunsets and electric wires
Treetops
Rooftops
Memories
Up and down the past
Pleasantly alone in the present
Free in the silence
There is light everywhere
I become the light. (December, 2015)


No, this isn’t a dream.

It is immaculate. I feel the steady coolness in the air, it whisks its sweet, priceless breeze from time to time. Joy is hanging, encompassing, living in the atmosphere. People are nice. I meet a Filipina and a Malaysian (suspiciously a couple) who were kind enough to tag me along to Marlboro hills and witness the sunrise. Together with our tour guide, Daphne, (Kumar) Komang, and I trek for 30 minutes in the trail of darkness and pine trees. I breathe in the minty scent. I walk slow and tilt my head upwards to see overlapping branches of trees. In between the gaps is a vastness dotted with stars. Upon nearing the hill, I can see the soft strokes of clouds absorbing light from the sun behind the mountains. We take photos while waiting for the sea of clouds. We sit, we stand. The four of us stay steady with the silence and the gradual light and the contours of the mountain range. Good gracious, the moment brims with peace and joy.

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Christmas alone in Sagada - Art of Movement - Lovey Marquez (19)

I speak with our tour guide. He tells us a number of people brave the low temperature in this altitude and set a camp overnight. He also discusses the places surrounding the Mountain Province. Everything proves to be interconnected from this viewpoint. He directs his finger to this and that. He mentions he is working as a tour guide for seven years. At the very onset, I assume he was a man in his forties. The increasing light of the dawn, thank heavens, reveals his handsome, youthful face.

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My stomach growls but I can’t give in to breakfast just yet so I order my first coffee of the day. We stop at an orange plantation in Rock Farm and Inn after the sunrise. Daphne and (Kumar) Komang decide to eat at the restaurant. I feel glad for their company. This gladness comes with curiosity so I start my interview. Daphne works as a nurse in Makati Medical Hospital and luckily scored a few days of holiday vacation. She also has been to Sagada twice, and evidently loves to travel too. She jokes about Komang looking like Gerald Anderson, a famous Filipino actor. Komang laughs. He comes from Kuala Lumpur and works as a marine engineer. He appears to be one of the good guys despite his leather jacket. He doesn’t drink alcohol, and of course he doesn’t smoke. He is also a vegetarian, in fact his entire family is.

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We continue our morning adventure at the orange farm. We gobble as many oranges as we liked for 30 minutes after paying an entrance fee of Php50 (1 US dollar), resisting the urge not to take them home, since we don’t fancy paying additional Php60 for every kilo of the takeout fruit. The boy accompanying us informs us that we can prune as many as seven varieties of orange, yet there are only four available in the farm. We indulge all the same. I imagine myself immersing in the fruit-harvesting kind of job when I plunge into long-term travel in the near future. Sounds sumptuous to the soul. We end our picking and eating with well-fed tummies and hearts.

Our guide drives us to our respective lodges. We part ways. I thank our tour guide and glance at his handsome face for the last time. Lastly, I say goodbye to Daphne and Komang and greet them a merry Christmas. They are heading to Baguio that afternoon. I hug Daphne and she advises me not to think too much about the circumstance. I ask why and she answers that, well, I will be alone for Christmas. I respond with a huge smile, wave my hand, and walk with a bouncing pace like a child.


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I am eating my long-awaited generous serving of tuna omelette meal for breakfast. I sit outside the comfort of the Sagada Brew restaurant and plunge into a wooden bench where the sunlight delightfully meets my brown skin. I close my eyes for a few seconds and wrap myself in the gift of shine and warmth. I savor the food for I haven’t eaten omelette for months. The brewed coffee poured in a yellow mug invites. I surrender to its allure. Life is plainly beautiful. I write of all things beautiful.

The sky is a penetrating blue. There are definites that need not spoken of.

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I am supposed to savor the lemon pie that afternoon for time is luxurious in the mountains. But I can’t. I sit outside The Lemon Pie Sagada House despite the passing of vehicles every few minutes, leaving behind dustfuls that keep swirling and twirling in front of me. I have no idea where I’m headed and what I’m going to do. I spot a group of girls toying with a bicycle nearby and ask one of them where the cemetery is. She points to a direction near the church and the municipal hall. I knew where the church is so maybe I can actually go there all by myself. I fix an imagination of myself “relaxing” in the cemetery as if it’s a park. I go back to devouring my lemon pie. The girl I talked to sits in front of me and gives me details. We eventually speak of the changes happening in Sagada. Fees for the tours and tour guides increase, trails become convenient, places to eat and stay grow in number. Vehicles, both private and public, come and go with careless abandon. Air pollution and congestion are inevitably emerging in the tourist destination. She then proceeds to personal specifics and asks me who I am with, why I am alone in the middle of the festive season, if I have a boyfriend, where I work and how much my salary is. I keep smiling as she throws one question after another. I wish I could go back to being non-apologetically curious about people’s lives. I am curious, yet I have reservations in asking all questions that come to mind immediately for fear of being disrespectful and crossing the line of one’s privacy. I enthusiastically ask her questions too – about her family, what degree she would like to take in the near future, if she has a boyfriend, where would she want to work… While studying, she works as a part-time helper/waitress at The Lemon Pie Sagada House. She seems very wise for her age. Her kindness is undeniable. Her story, though partial as it is sourced from a one-time conversation, is a reflection of a life that blooms and colors with countless opportunities. I hope she finds success in whatever makes her happy and alive. Her parents and siblings are lucky. She asks if I have Facebook so that we can keep in touch. I type in her name (Diana) on my phone and promise to add her account. After about one hour, I bade goodbye and head to the cemetery. I leave with a tinge of regret for I haven’t been able to take a photo of her lovely, innocent face. While having our conversation minutes ago, her friends spoke something in their dialect. I understand none of it except that it seems funny for they were laughing. She translates, “They say we look alike, like sisters.”

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Upon arriving, the church is spotted with people of all ages. An old man catches my attention. The upper buttons of his polo are slightly open and exposes his white chest. He is sitting on a concrete bench and reading a book while bathing in the warmth of the late afternoon sun. Kids play and roll on the grass. A door painted blue is open ajar. I step in. The interior of the church is quiet and deserted. I leave and proceed to the foot of the cemented stairs where the entrance of the cemetery is located. There is a booth with a woman sitting behind a table, probably from the Tourism Office, who interrogates if I had paid for environmental fee. With a deep conviction, she says she has not seen me around. Life is a series of strange but sweet, serendipitous events. My guide earlier this morning appears like a hero and answers yes. I smile. He must have accompanied a pack of tourists in the Echo Valley and Hanging Coffins and is just heading home. He rests at the foot of the stairs. The woman then resorts to commanding that I needed a tour guide. So I wait for a guide and another group of tourists. A few minutes pass when my former guide stands and volunteers to walk me to the cemetery. I hear no complaints from the woman. The Universe is weirdly present everywhere and wildly generous. I don’t question it. We climb the stairs together. He asks which transportation I was taking when I return to Manila. I inform him of my plans, that is, taking a van back to Banaue and from there, a bus from Ohayami Trans. He playfully suggests that I should have taken a direct bus to Manila called Coda Lines. I didn’t know about it formerly so I just tell him that I will the next time. I remember him mentioning earlier in the morning that he will be driving to Buscalan in Kalinga the next day. I enjoy our exchange. He made me change my plans to push through with visiting the Echo Valley and Hanging Coffins by myself instead of the cemetery only. We arrive at the entrance. He points to where I should trek and directs me to just follow the red rail. My heart breaks a little. This must be ultimately the last goodbye. We smile to each other, secretly sending out hopes we meet again. I don’t even know his name.

My afternoon spirals out a fate of magic.

I saunter, take photos, and notice the changes in the trail from two years ago but the view is as incredible. I am not sure if I’m on the right track so I just follow the echo of voices and ask for directions whenever I meet a human being on the trail. I love being alone, merely guided by my instincts and by nature.

Christmas alone in Sagada - Art of Movement - Lovey Marquez (87)

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I come back to the lodge and relax before heading out for dinner. It is the eve of Christmas already. I decide on dining at Salt and Pepper. I climb to the restaurant and position myself on their cozy terrace. While waiting for my order, I snatch my book out of the bag and read or, from to time to time, observe the scenes below the veranda. I embrace the cold, or as I recall, the cold, rather, embraces me. Families, couples, friends and all kinds of groups start to pour in and dine. I am partly surprised at myself for not being so awkward in the aloneness. I take my time eating my mushroom chicken with rice and veggies. In an attempt to combat the cold, I order a cup of the local mountain tea. I succumb to the moment and inhale deeply the peaceful Christmas. All of a sudden, I hear a soprano singing of a Christmas song. I glimpse a group of women travelers wearing Santa hats, walking the streets, singing and spreading joy to everyone who fortunately sees and hears their voices. They look like angels sent by Santa himself. The night gets luckier. Stores are open and welcoming to anyone who needs something to buy on Christmas eve. By 9PM, I leave the restaurant and buy myself a slice of Devil’s Chocolate cake. My night hasn’t quite ended yet. I plunge into a Christmas walk. I see people doing the same, arms coiled into one another. I wonder how Diana and the tour guide are spending the holiday. I hope they are blissful in their homes, or wherever they might be celebrating. Halfway into my promenade, I spot a bonfire on a yard of a home, surrounded by a family perhaps, and I am tempted to approach and ask (or plead) if I can join them. I hear their celebratory voices and choose to continue my walk. On the corner of the street, just beside the market, I see two men standing. Their faces are obscure. I stride until I reach the basketball court. I linger for a while. When I decide to turn back, the two men remain in the same position. This time, they ask me if I was lost. I say no, simultaneously thinking in silence how can someone get possibly lost here when there is only one main street, keep my calm, and carry on the Christmas walk under the stars.

I enter my room on the third floor of the lodge and feel gratitude for the warmth of this temporary shelter. I clean my face and change into pajamas. I then tuck myself into the cold sheets and eat half of my “Christmas cake”. I pick my reliable book for company and, unknowingly, I am on the last chapter. Tears wet my entire face. I cry hard and real because it is so full of heart. I cry for it emptied me of complicated thoughts, filled me with pure joy, and made me remember the most ancient truth there is called love. While reading I ask, “How can love be this so big, transcendent even?” The Help deserves 5 stars in Goodreads.

I sleep like a baby.


 

Christmas alone in Sagada - Art of Movement - Lovey Marquez (80)

I wake up and feel incredible. I go downstairs to get coffee, eat my crackers and canned sausage in a bench. I bask in the early warmth of the sun. In this small corner of the world, there is no space for complaints. La vie est belle. I return to my room, turn some Odesza music on and pack my bag. A few minutes later, I shower and source energy from the warm water for the day ahead.

The sky bares its true blue color. I walk, not sure of where to eat my last meal in Sagada. Most of the restaurants are closed, so I decide to visit the church first. It is flocked with people, mostly locals. I guess a mass just ended and it is time for giving away bread and coffee. I suddenly hear Diana’s voice from a distance. She is sitting with her friends. How many times can a person be so astonishingly lucky? I inform her I couldn’t find her on Facebook so I give her my name instead. She asks then if I’m going to the cemetery. I mention that I already went yesterday, smiling at the fresh memory of it. We wish each other a merry Christmas and she follows where her friends headed. I sit where they left and take my camera out. While capturing the merry scenes, a kind man offered me to get some of the free bread and coffee. I say thanks, my shyness dominates from collecting something that is provided, seemingly, for the locals. I dispel my thought. It is Christmas day after all, and it feels unforgivable to refuse the loving atmosphere. I continue to sit still and participate in the joyful season by watching people being content, being themselves, and being part of one another.

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I decide to eat breakfast again in Salt and Pepper and get cozy in my home for the moment.

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…the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation. -Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

7 thoughts on “Traveling solo means spending Christmas alone | Sagada, Philippines”

  1. This particularly is a kind of unique melancholy sound but there is definitely an ambient scene that i somehow find myself amused. Your kind of book is a delightful read.

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